Leadership lessons in a crisis from Shackleton’s Endurance expedition

You never want a serious crisis to go to waste. And what I mean by that is it’s an opportunity to do things that you think you could not before.

This statement was made by Rahm Emanuel, then the incoming Chief of Staff of the Obama administration. He famously channeled Stanford Nobel Laureate Paul Romer’s saying, A crisis is a terrible thing to waste. Waste it they did not. Acting with speed and purpose, coming into office the Obama administration pushed a wealth of transformative legislation.

Over the last week I’ve been speaking with startup founders about how the COVID-19 crisis is catalyzing their businesses thinking into make stuff happen. We agreed it is all about decisive leadership, and many are looking for stories of great leadership outside of business for inspiration.

I’ve referenced to many the most dangerous moment in human history: the morning of Tuesday, October 16, 1962. President John F. Kennedy had reviewed photographic evidence of the deployment of Soviet nuclear missiles in Cuba, just 90 miles off America’s coast, and thus began thirteen days of existential crisis. The whole nature of life, the shape and future of humanity, was at stake.

The Cuban missile crisis is a chilling tale, for the showdown could easily have gone another way, but for Kennedy’s leadership. Kennedy was cool, rational, careful and willing to compromise. Check out Robert F. Kennedy’s Thirteen Days: A Memoir of the Cuban Missile Crisis, it relates the key leadership lessons from JFK: he was a leader driven by facts, not preconceptions, by the larger good, and not by his own ego or pride, wanting to be seen as a hero.

In our own hours of slow-motion, there’s real value in engaging with the stories of how leaders have reacted amid tension and tumult in their moments of truth. The vicissitudes of history show us that the past can give us hope that human ingenuity and character can save us from the abyss and keep us on a path to broad, sunlit uplands.

Alas in our current crisis, Boris Johnson hasn’t given me feelings of reassurance and confidence as Kennedy gave the American people. Over the last weeks I’ve not heard a speech from him that assured me with its moral seriousness, depth, or authentic presentation of facts. His utterances are invariably political rhetoric.

Leaders in a crisis need to be able to command authority, trust and respect, implement a coherent strategy, instil confidence, and reassure a nation for whom normal life has been suspended. Johnson is clever but essentially unserious. He seems ill prepared and ponderous. What is striking is just how inarticulate he is when not working from a prepared script.

Johnson can’t find an appropriate tone or method of persuasion. He tried to be statesman like – I must level with the British people – and he tried to be optimistic – We can turn the tide in 12 weeks and I’m absolutely confident we can send coronavirus packing in this country – but he lacks gravitas and sounds like quick fire, jejune soundbites from a raconteur.

In the political arena the obvious examples of successful crisis leadership are Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill. Both were somewhat erratic decision-makers, but they made up for it by being brilliant communicators. Their styles differed, but the public had little difficulty in understanding their core message. Roosevelt made clear that he was willing to try any combination of new ideas in an attempt to end the Depression; Churchill was unambiguous about the need for Britain to resist Nazi Germany, whatever the cost.

For me, startup leaders should resist the temptation to give Churchillian speeches and learn from the calm authority of Roosevelt’s ‘fireside chats’, aiming to connect with the individual whilst speaking to the masses. A leader is a dealer in hope during a crisis, and being calm provides more reassurance than a rebel-rousing call-to-action.

So, let’s look at a story of truly great leadership, applying the lessons of someone who has come before us, and be inspired by their performance to shed light on our paths to the future for our own startup.

Ernest Shackleton was an Irishman of Yorkshire parentage, and one of the greatest Antarctic explorers. Shackleton’s most famous expedition was that of 1914-1916. Lessons have been drawn from his leadership style in this expedition, and how they can be applied to crisis situations. It’s a remarkable story.

Shackleton set out at the age of forty on a self-funded voyage to make what was considered the last great expedition left on Earth – an 1,800 mile crossing of the Antarctic on foot. His ship was the aptly named Endurance, after his family motto, Fortitudine Vincimus by endurance we conquer. The Endurance expedition lasted from August 8, 1914 to August 30, 1916. It was one crisis after another.

All was well at the outset, until just one day’s sail from its destination on the Antarctic coast when the ship got stuck in pack ice. Shackleton and his men were stranded on an ice floe 1,200 miles from land, with no means of communication – and no hope of rescue. When it seemed the situation could not get any worse it did, as the pack ice dragged the ship north for ten months, 600 miles, and then crushed the Endurance. The men were forced to camp on the ice shelf and watch as the ship sank.

All they had were three small lifeboats salvaged from Endurance, just twenty-five feet long to upturn as somewhere to shelter. Temperatures were so low the sea froze. Subsisting on a diet of penguins and seals, they spent four months in the darkness of the polar winter. And then the ice began to melt. After four months of mind-numbing boredom and danger sat on the ice floe, they were suddenly pitched into an intense battle for survival.

In the lifeboats they battled raging, freezing seas for a week, before making land at Elephant Island. It was inhospitable, with no animals for food or fresh water. Shackleton then took five men and sailed another 800 miles in one of the lifeboats, the James Caird, over tumultuous seas to reach South Georgia, part of the Falkland Islands, for help. Their journey lasted sixteen days, navigated only with a sextant.

When they greeted the whaling station manager, Thoralf Sorlle, he looked at them incredulously: Who the hell are you? The remarkable voyage of the James Caird was from April 24 to May 10, 1916. Spending just four days recovering, Shackleton led the rescue effort of his stranded crew. He saved the lives of 27 men stranded. Every single one survived.

‘Shackleton’s Way’ – his leadership philosophy from the Endurance expedition – resonates with themes and messages any startup leader can can take into their venture today. His people-centric leadership style saw them survive against the odds. He built this on camaraderie, loyalty, responsibility, determination and, above all, optimism. The key elements to ‘Shackleton’s Way’ maybe summarised as follows:

Be values based Fortitudine Vincimus by endurance we conquer. Shackleton’s family values shaped his uniquely progressive leadership style. He turned bad experiences into valuable lessons and he insisted on respect for the individual in a climate that demanded cooperation.

A spirit of camaraderie Shackleton created spirit and intimacy between the men. He established order and routine so all his staff knew where they stood, but broke down traditional hierarchies. He used informal gatherings to build an esprit de corps, and spent time with every one individually.

Coach the best from each individual Shackleton led by example. He accepted and understood his crewmen’s quirks and weaknesses. He used informal one-to-one talks to build a bond with his men. He was always willing to help others get their work done. He helped each man reach their potential.

Leading from the front Shackleton let everyone know that he was confident of success. He inspired optimism in everyone. He put down dissent by keeping the malcontents close to him. He got everyone to let go of the past and focus on the future. He sometime led by doing nothing.

Build self-managing teams Shackleton balanced talent and expertise in each team. He ensured all his groups were keeping pace. He remained visible and vigilant. He shored up the weakest links. He got teams to help each other.

Overcoming obstacles together Shackleton took responsibility for getting the job done. He often took risks. He found the inspiration to continue. He kept sight of the big picture. He stepped outside his role as leader to personally help others in their own roles.

Shackleton faced a personal crisis but was famous for ‘thinking on his feet’ time and time again on the Endurance expedition, developing six ‘crisis leadership’ skills:

Challenge your assumptions With the devastating changes in circumstance, Shackleton had to constantly change his thinking. The biggest challenge of leadership is our unspoken attitudes and beliefs we cling to about our businesses, and the need to challenge these.

In the current crisis, rethink your assumptions and attitudes, don’t cling to the past.

Change your perspective Stranded on Elephant Island, Shackleton had to take a fresh perspective and be open-minded. We tend to rely on information that proves us right and screen out anything that contradicts our prevailing point of view. As a result, we often filter, distort or ignore the information, so that we only see what we want to see.

Changing your perspective doesn’t mean throwing out all your old ideas, just the ones that get in the way of on-going change.

Ask the right questions Questions open up new ideas and possibilities. Too often we get stuck by focusing on the solution rather than the problem. Instead, ask future looking questions. Shackleton had to ask himself the right questions, before even thinking about solutions.

What if? Is a great way of unblocking the boundaries to your thinking at the present time.

Question the right answer Most problems have multiple solutions, some are better, easier, cheaper, or more feasible than others, but rarely is there only one right answer. Never settle for the first good answer. Good often gets in the way of great. Shackleton had to identify and then evaluate his options, looking for good and bad points within each.

Don’t jump to solutions, ask yourself What are the options here?

Be honest with empathy Shackleton faced each new crisis head on, topmost on his mind was being honest but optimistic. There are the obvious key concerns, and silence on such matters is dangerous. In the end, failure to tell the truth rapidly erodes trust and confidence. It’s also important you adopt the right tone, it can matter as much as having the right message.

It’s also essential you tell the truth. Shackleton was calm and transparent, and told his men he didn’t have an immediate plan to get them home safely, but was working on one. Shackleton was emphatic about accepting where they were at a given moment, and dealing with that.

You can promise everything to the many until you are unable to deliver even a little to the few. Don’t back yourself into this corner.

Listen Shackleton took time to listen to his men’s concerns and answer their questions. He recognised that the quieter you become, the more you can hear. At a time of a highly infectious disease, an online virtual coffee gathering of your team enables you to listen to their voices, listen to their concerns.

In the midst our own current crisis, startup founders need to grab Shackleton’s mantle, and take inspiration from Intel’s Andy Grove who famously said, Bad companies are destroyed by crisis; good companies survive them; great companies are improved by them.

Shackleton was essentially a fighter, but he was overflowing with kindness and generosity, affectionate and loyal to his crew. His personal motto was reach beyond your expectations. So push yourself forward, be a Shackleton not a Johnson. COVID-19 sees us all facing our Antarctic moment.

Hiring an outstanding crew: lessons from Shackleton’s Endurance expedition.

I’ve previously written about Shackleton’s leadership qualities in my blog, and the first leg of his epic James Caird voyage in his escape from the South Pole:

https://www.dnapeople.co.uk/100-years-on-from-the-voyage-of-the-james-caird-leadership-lessons-from-shackleton/

Two weeks on from putting to sea and finding respite on Elephant Island, he began the second leg of his journey, 100 years ago yesterday, when the James Caird was launched from Elephant Island on 24 April 1916, headed for South Georgia in the southern Atlantic Ocean, a distance of 800 nautical miles.

With five companions, Shackelton’s objective was to obtain rescue for the 26 men stranded on Elephant Island after the loss of Endurance. Polar historians regard the voyage as one of the greatest small-boat journeys ever undertaken.

The James Caird was named by Shackleton after Sir James Key Caird, a Dundee jute manufacturer and philanthropist, whose sponsorship had helped finance the expedition. Surviving a series of dangers in tumultuous seas, including a near capsizing, the boat reached the southern coast of South Georgia after a voyage lasting 16 days.

Shackleton’s choices for the boat’s crew were Frank Worsley and Tom Crean. Shackleton was confident that Crean would persevere to the bitter end, and had great faith in Worsley’s skills as a navigator, especially his ability to work out positions in difficult circumstances. For the remaining places Shackleton took John Vincent, Henry McNish and Timothy McCarthy.

The wind was a moderate south-westerly, which aided a swift getaway, and the boat was quickly out of sight of the land. Shackleton ordered Worsley to set a course due north, instead of directly for South Georgia, to get clear of the menacing ice-fields that were beginning to form. Shackleton established an on-board routine: two three-man watches, with one man at the helm, another at the sails, and the third on bailing duty.

Success depended on Worsley’s navigation, based on sightings attempted during the very brief appearances of the sun, as the boat pitched and rolled. Navigation became, in Worsley’s words, a merry jest of guesswork, as they encountered the worst of the weather. Nevertheless, they were still moving towards their goal, and a dead-reckoning calculation by Worsley on 6 May, suggested that they were now 115 nautical miles from the western point of South Georgia.

On 7 May Worsley advised Shackleton that he could not be sure of their position within ten miles. Late on the same day floating seaweed was spotted, and the next morning there were birds, including cormorants which were known never to venture far from land. Shortly after noon on 8 May came the first sighting of South Georgia.

As they approached the high cliffs of the coastline, heavy seas made immediate landing impossible. For more than 24 hours they were forced to stand clear. On 10 May, when the storm had eased slightly, Shackleton was concerned that the weaker members of his crew would not last another day, and decided that whatever the hazard they must attempt a landing. Finally, after several attempts, made their landing. The voyage of the James Caird would be ranked as one of the greatest boat journeys ever accomplished.

As the party recuperated, Shackleton decided he, Worsley and Crean would cross the island on foot, aiming for the station at Stromness. Early on 18 May they began. Since they had no map, they had to improvise a route across mountain ranges and gaciers. They travelled continuously for 36 hours, before reaching Stromness.

The advent of the southern winter and adverse ice conditions meant that it was more than three months before Shackleton was able to achieve the relief of the men at Elephant Island but finally, with the aid of the steam-tug Yelcho. commanded by Luis Pardo, the entire party was brought to safety, reaching Punta Arenas in Chile on 3 September 1916.

Lessons have been drawn from Shackleton’s leadership in planning and executing his expeditions, and how it can be applied to modern business thinking. On the Endurance expedition, it was his ability to assemble an outstanding crew that stands out. Shackleton was surrounded by a team of outstanding individuals, each of whom had a key role to play in the voyage.

So, lets look first at the key Endurance personnel, roles and responsibilities on the expedition, and then the recruitment strategy and process Shackleton implemented to form his team.

Deputy: Frank Wild, Second in Command, was responsible for the day to day operations of the expedition plotting routes, actions and decisions on all aspects of the ship, including responsibility for the crew welfare.

Wild was an inconspicuous figure, yet there was something in his presence that inspired confidence. Wild was left in charge of the men on Elephant Island for the 18 months of isolation.

Wild had a rare tact, wrote Shackleton and the happy knack of saying nothing and yet getting people to do things just as he requires them.

Operations: Frank Worsley, Captain of the Endurance and ultimately responsible for assessing the direction of the ship to the Pole. A native of New Zealand, Worsley ran away to sea at 16, apprenticing on a wool clipper.

Worsley was a master navigator, and the success of the James Caird journey to South Georgia is largely due to his efforts when he navigated 800 miles of dangerous seas. Worsley died in 1943, aged 70 years, his ashes were scattered at sea.

Financial: Tom Crean, Second Officer, and responsible for the expedition’s budget. Born one of ten children in County Kerry, Ireland, Crean was tall and tough as an oak. He had been to the Pole twice ahead of Endurance, with Scott on both the Discovery and Terra Nova expeditions.

For his courage during Shackleton’s 1909 South Polar journey, Crean was awarded the Albert Medal. Crean made the James Caird journey to South Georgia and joined Shackleton and Worsley in the crossing of the island. He returned to Ireland and opened a pub called the South Pole Inn, still there today. He died in 1938.

Creative: Frank Hurley was the Endurance photographer. An independent-minded Australian, he gained a reputation for stopping at nothing to secure a memorable photograph.

His stunning photographs of the Endurance expedition are largely what his reputation rests on today, but he was also a noted WWI photographer. His Paget process photographs of the war are among the only known colour images of the conflict. One evening he came home complaining of feeling unwell. He sat in his chair, had a cup of tea, fell asleep and never woke up.

Special Resources: Charles Green was the Endurance cook. Food played an important role with special diets essential, but Shackleton also used the gathering of the crew at meal times as a key part of his leadership, creating a spirit of camaraderie.

Green joined the Endurance at Buenos Aires, replacing the ship’s original cook, who had been sacked. He cooked imperturbably on the ice floes, and on Elephant Island. When he finally returned to England in late 1916 found that his parents had cashed his life insurance policy and his girlfriend had married someone else! Green died in 1974, aged 86.

Communications: Lionel Greenstreet, First Officer responsible for the official log of the journey and communicating with the crew. He had experience in the merchant service before joining the expedition on the spur of the moment, 24 hours before Endurance sailed, when her original First Officer elected to volunteer for war duty.

Greenstreet saved the log of the Endurance and carried it with him at all times until the subsequent rescue. During WWI he served as captain of a Royal Navy tugboat, and during WWII, served on rescue ships. He died in 1979 at the age of 89 – he was the last survivor of the Endurance expedition.

Human Resource: Dr. Alexander Macklin was the doctor and brought many new ideas to the medical care and attention of the crew using new equipment and technology. In medical school he discovered Nansen’s Furthest North, which ignited in him the desire to become an explorer.

During WWI, Macklin served as a doctor during which he won the Military Cross for bravery in tending the wounded under fire. Macklin joined Shackleton for the Quest expedition and was with Shackleton when he died; to him fell the duty of performing a post-mortem on his friend.

Staffing: Alfred Cheetham was Endurance’s Third Officer. Born in Liverpool, he was a long-time sailor, and had served aboard Morning, one of the vessels sent in relief of Scott’s 1902 expedition. After serving as Third Officer of the Nimrod, he served aboard Terra Nova during Scott’s fatal 1912 expedition.

A small, cheerful man, he was an integral part of the Endurance epic, keeping the sometimes troublesome trawler hands crew under control. After the Endurance expedition, Cheetham served in the Royal Navy, and was killed just weeks before the Armistice. Cheetham had been south of the Antarctic Circle more than any other man, spending nearly four man years there – still a record today.

So that was the oustanding crew, what about Shackleton’s recruitment strategy and process? Shackleton’s initial advertisement in The Times set the tone: Men wanted for hazardous journey. Small wages, bitter cold, long months of complete darkness, constant danger. Safe return doubtful, honour and recognition in case of success.

Life on polar expeditions isn’t for dreamers. Antarctica is the coldest, windiest and driest place on earth, covered by a layer of ice three miles thick. The mean annual temperature is -70°F, what type of men wanted to go there? Shackleton was clear in his mind the sort of men he wanted for his crew:

The men selected must be qualified for their work to meet the special conditions. They must be able to live in harmony for a long period of time, without outside communication. It must be remembered that men whose desires lead them to the untrodden paths of the world have generally marked individuality. Character and temperament are as important as ability. I have to balance my types, their science or seamanship weighs little against the sort of chaps they are.

Clear in his mind the sort of men he wanted, what were the key elements to his recruitment strategy?

Build your crew around a core of experienced men Recruit experienced workers to establish a professional environment, they will support younger staff when the going gets tough. Recognise the value of expertise, whatever the age of the individual, and balance your team’s experience and age.

Chose the best management team Surround yourself with the best people you can in senior positions, who share your views of leadership and with whom there is absolute mutual trust, respect and loyalty. Pick people who compliment your management style without being yes-men.

Loyalty, cheerfulness, strength and experience are key qualities for your leadership team. They will have more contact day-to-day with your staff than you, and whilst handling issues and providing advice to the staff, are also your eyes and ears.

Recruit people who share your vision Shackleton made a mistake on his first polar journey by hiring individuals who didn’t fit the bold, risk-taking culture of exploration. For the Endurance he recruited a captain with bravado in spades, he was bold, a little eccentric – a mad-hat just right for the job.

Be different. Shackleton conducted unconventional interviews to unearth unique talent. He sorted applications from candidates into three piles – mad, possible and hopeless. His interviews were freewheeling exchanges, brief but intense. Shackleton believed the touchstone for a man’s spirit was his personality, and his interviews went deeper than experience and expertise, asking questions that revealed a candidate’s personality, values, and perspective on work and life.

Recruit those who had the expertise he lacked Shackleton was not a scientist but that was the purpose of the journey, so he recruited people with superior education and expertise. He liked his key men to be tough, clever and inventive. Hire those with talents and expertise you lack, don’t feel threatened by them as they will help you stay on the cutting edge.

Shackleton built and sustained his crew by constantly reinforcing a personal connection with all his crew individually. His approach to recruiting and leading people provides food for thought we can adopt and apply to business today, offering guidance for hiring your own outstanding crew.

100 years on from the voyage of the James Caird: leadership lessons from Shackleton

Exactly 100 years ago today, 9 April 1916, Ernest Shackleton was in the James Caird, a 25 foot boat, attempting the first part of a staggering journey in the tumultuous South Alantic ocean.

Shackleton was an Antarctic explorer who twice came close to being the first to reach the South Pole in 1902 and in 1909, before Amundsen beat Scott in 1912. His Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition of 1914-1916, aboard Endurance, also ended in failure, but unlike Scott, who died at the Pole, Shackleton survived.

Lessons have been drawn from Shackleton’s leadership in planning and executing his expedition and subsequent rescue, and how they can be applied to modern business thinking, notably his ability to assemble an outstanding crew and his leadership style. It’s a remarkable story.

Shackleton set out at the age of forty on a self-funded voyage to make what was considered the last great expedition left on Earth – an 1,800 mile crossing of the Antarctic on foot. His ship was the aptly named Endurance, after his family motto, Fortitudine Vincimus by endurance we conquer.

The Endurance set sail on August 8, 1914. All was well, until just one day’s sail from its destination on the Antarctic coast, the ship stuck in pack ice in the Weddell Sea on December 7, becoming trapped on January 18, 1915. She was abandoned ten months later on 27 October, and sank 21 November.

Shackleton and his 27 men were stranded on an ice floe 1,200 miles from land, with no means of communication and no hope of rescue. All they had were three small lifeboats salvaged from the ship, just twenty-five feet long. Temperatures were so low that you could hear the sea freeze. They spent four months in the darkness of the long polar winter.

Eventually when the ice began to melt, the men took to the lifeboats. After four months of mind-numbing boredom and danger sat on the ice floe, they were suddenly pitched into an intense battle for survival that brought them to the limits of human capabilities.

It was 100 years ago today that they started their epic journey to Elephant Island, which had no animals for food or fresh water. On 15 April 1916, after seven days at sea in some of the worst conditions imaginable, the three boats landed, reaching terra firma for the first time in 497 days.

A week later, Shackleton took five men to sail 800 miles in the James Caird, over tumultuous seas to reach South Georgia, part of the Falkland Islands, for help. Their journey lasted sixteen days, navigated only with a sextant. When they landed, they had to cross a mountain range to reach civilisation at a whaling station. This climb took another 36 hours.

When they greeted the whaling station manager, Thoralf Sorlle, he looked at them incredulously, Who the hell are you? One of the men stepped forward and replied: My name is Shackleton. Thoraf Sorlle, it is said, turned away and wept. The first remarkable voyage of the James Caird was 9 April to 16 April, the second from April 24 to May 10, 1916.

Having spent four days recovering with the whalers, Shackleton turned round and led the effort to rescue the rest of his crew, on board a Chilean tugboat, The Yelcho. It took him four attempts to do so. Shackleton saved the lives of 22 men left stranded for 137 days on 30 August 1916, ending The Endurance expedition which set sail on August 8, 1914.

A statue of Luis Pardo, captain of The Yelcho, sits on the landing point at Elephant Island. Since that time, only a handful of expeditions have been there, including the Shackleton Epic expedition of 2013 which sought to replicate the journey – here’s the web site link http://shackletonepic.com/ and a video link https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OoUCLtTXZOI

In 1922 some of the Endurance crew returned to the island when they landed from the Quest, Shackleton’s last expedition, on which he died of a heart attack aged 48. One can well imagine what an emotional experience it must have been for those men.

Arising from this epic encounter, Shackleton’s Way, his leadership philosophy from his Endurance expedition – resonates with themes and messages any business leader can can learn from. His leadership style, primarily to focus on the team, saw them survive against the odds.

His people centred approach to leadership can be a guide for us all. He built his success on camaraderie, loyalty, responsibility, determination and – above all – optimism. There are eight elements to ‘Shackleton’s Way’ as follows:

The path to leadership Fortitudine Vincimus  – by endurance we conquer. The values Shackleton learned from his family helped form his uniquely progressive leadership style. He turned bad experiences into valuable lessons and he insisted on respect for the individual in a climate that demanded cooperation.

Hiring an outstanding crew Shackleton built a crew around a core of experienced workers. He conducted unconventional interviews to find unique talent. His second in command was his most important hire. He looked for optimism and cheerfulness in the people he hired. He gave his staff the best compensation and equipment he could afford.

Creating a spirit of camaraderie Shackleton made careful observations before acting. He established order and routine so all his staff knew where they stood. He broke down traditional hierarchies. He was fair in his dealings with his staff. He used informal gatherings to build an esprit de corps.

Getting the best from each individual Shackleton led by example. He accepted and understood his crewmen’s quirks and weaknesses. He used informal one-to-one talks to build a bond with his men. He was always willing to help others get their work done. He helped each man reach their potential.

Leading effectively in a crisis Shackleton let everyone know that he was confident of success. He inspired optimism in everyone. He put down dissent by keeping the malcontents close to him. He got everyone to let go of the past and focus on the future. He worked to keep spirits high. He sometime led by doing nothing.

Forming teams for tough assignments Shackleton balanced talent and expertise in each team. He ensured all his groups were keeping pace. He remained visible and vigilant. He shored up the weakest links. He got teams to help each other.

Overcoming obstacles to reach a goal Shackleton took responsibility for getting the job done. He often took risks. He found the inspiration to continue. He kept sight of the big picture. He stepped outside his role as leader to personally help others in their own roles.

Shackleton showed the qualities of strong, effective leadership – enthusiasm, confidence, warmth, integrity, toughness, humility – whilst also recognising the importance of a team, and the trust and respect everyone in a team must show to each other whatever their rank.

It is by building a sense of teamwork and community just as Shackleton did nearly 100 years ago that we can overcome the unexpected detours and hurdles encountered on our own business journeys. Shackleton faced many of the problems we encounter today as business leaders:

  • bringing a diverse group of people together to work toward a common goal
  • bucking up the perpetual worries
  • keeping the disgruntled from poisoning the atmosphere
  • battling fatigue and challenge when things aren’t working
  • bringing order and success to a chaotic environment
  • working within challenging time scales and finite resources

Shackleton was a pioneer, but also an innovator in terms of ‘thinking on his feet’ when faced with unexpected challenges. Anyone can innovate once, all it takes is a good idea, some hard work, sufficient resources, and a little bit of luck. However, Shackleton did it time and time again on the Endurance expedition, and this is what is required in today’s business environment, which demands on-going leadership innovation to stay ahead of the pack.

The core of Shackleton’s leadership philosophy was persistence. Shackleton was essentially a fighter, afraid of nothing and nobody, but overall, he was human, overflowing with kindness and generosity, affectionate and loyal to all his crew. As we reflect back 100 years ago today on the first James Caird voyage, Shackleton’s personal motto of reach beyond your expectations seems so apt. That’s Shackleton’s Way. You wait, everyone has an Antarctic moment.

Being Joe Strummer – The future is unwritten

What do you write when one of your heroes bites the dust? Today, 22 December 2011, is the ninth anniversary of the death of Joe Strummer, and for me it’s a day filled with wistful memories of my (fading) youth, and at the same time happy memories that make me smile of being at some amazing concerts, and the legacy of some fantastic tunes that I’ve been singing along to for over 30 years. Still out of tune I might add. My little sister had Diana, Princess of Wales; I had Strummer and the Clash. If you grew up with the Clash you knew exactly what they stood for. He was also a great leveler – if you met someone who liked the Clash, they were all right. Strummer was an icon, a voice with attitude and intelligence.

Strummer was the key that opened the door for me about what was out there in my later, formative teenage years, giving me more inspiration than any teachers could, apart from Mr Evans my Maths teacher who I think did more for my mathematical inspiration than Isaac Newton, although the 1-2-3-4 intro to some Clash songs showed progress towards a Fibonacci series…

Strummer was everything a rebel rock star should really be. People believed in him, he inspired all from soldiers to newsreaders to miners to the unemployed. Strummer had integrity, was articulate whilst being angry, a brilliant sloganeer, and most importantly, a great soul of humanity. His restless musical curiosity gave the lie to the caricatured image of punk as a mindless two-chord thrash, while his acute lyrics set a benchmark for song-writing that tackled political and social themes. Live fast, die young – and he did.

We all have our heroes and icons, people who influenced us, shaped our thinking, stirred our passions. I have a relatively simple definition of heroes and role models: they are people you look up to and aspire to be like because of what they have accomplished, what they stand for, and how they’ve articulated themselves. Mostly, they inspire you to live life better.

There’s no question that Strummer was an explosive live performer and a great songwriter, but he is equally remembered for inspiring a generation to try to make a difference through music. He played as if the world could be changed by a three-minute song, and when I first saw the Clash play aged 16, my world was changed forever. Over the next few years, this was it, and in the first weeks of being away from home at University, seeing the Clash play at Sheffield Lyceum, October 1981 as a first year student, this was my world! His idealism and conviction instilled in me the courage to try to make a difference. This was what I wanted. Joe Strummer was my greatest inspiration, my favorite singer of all time and my hero. He sang, he played and he didn’t stop. He’s someone to be admired. We all took a little bit of Joe from those that saw him.

I think everyone should have a hero in life. Someone you aspire to be like, who you look up to. Having a hero is a good motivator because not only does it push you to keep a high standard to your own actions but also when you feel dispirited you can ask yourself how your hero would respond. Having a hero will keep you on the right course when you’re unsure of what to do, motivate you to perform at your peak and will be a source of strength when you need it.

But let’s step back a little. This isn’t a eulogy to the memory of a hero born out of some teenage angst, rather about a man who lifted my head when my head was pretty empty of knowledge and experience, who gave me social and political conscience and an attitude born from anger, frustration, a catalyst to doing something different and doing it for myself. It isn’t hero worship, and he certainly isn’t a role model I’ve carried a torch for. A hero is not a role model.

Role models are intimately connected to our experience, whereas heroes may serve as vicarious images. Role models usually fulfill our needs, whereas heroes may be a disappointment when they fall from grace. Role models are not an extension of who we are, whereas heroes may be tied to an illusion that we have about reality. You rarely hear about role models, but heroes receive a great deal of attention. From a personal development perspective regarding business, I prefer to look for role models for spiritual and psychological growth as I find they assist me in building confidence and character, and stimulate my thinking.

While I only have one hero, I find role models everywhere. They are people who exhibit some characteristic I admire and try to emulate. Thus I think it’s possible to have many different role models, each excelling in a different field.

When things get tough, I look to Ernest Shackleton, the Antarctic explorer, who was known for his leadership, positive attitude and stamina. No matter how many setbacks got in his way, and no matter how exhausted everyone else in his expedition team was, Shackleton would still be out there leading from the front. So every time I feel myself flagging I think about this great man and find a burst of energy and renewed commitment.

A business role model I have is the company 37 Signals, a web applications development company based in Chicago, founded in 1998 – check out their website http://37signals.com/ I admire their business attitude and philosophy as set down in two very readable books by founders Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson Getting Real and ReWork.  Like Strummer, they have confidence and attitude that there is a different way, and provide motivational insights throughout their writing. For example, whenever I’m feeling boxed in or hitting barriers, I recall these words regarding embracing constraints:

Let limitations guide you to creative solutions. There’s never enough to go around. Not enough time. Not enough money. Not enough people. That’s a good thing. Instead of freaking out about these constraints, embrace them. Let them guide you. Constraints drive innovation and force focus. Instead of trying to remove them, use them to your advantage.

There are a few other gems in the books too:

  • What you need to do is stop talking and start working.
  • Success is the experience that actually counts.
  • Be a starter. The most important thing is to begin.
  • Decisions are progress. Commit to making decisions. Don’t wait for the perfect solution. Decide and move forward.
  • Don’t make things worse by over-analysing and delaying before you even get going. Get it out there
  • The best way to get there is through iterations. Stop imagining what’s going to work. Find out for real.
  • It’s OK if it’s not perfect. You might not seem as professional, but you will seem a lot more genuine.
  • What does 5 years experience mean anyway? How long someone’s been doing it is overrated. What matters is how well they’ve been doing it.
  • Inspiration expires now. Inspiration is a magical thing, a productivity multiplier, a motivator. But it won’t wait for you.

I think that it is important to make a distinction between the heroic figures that we value and the role models that have impacted our lives. People tend to idealise their heroes and believe that they live in a world of perfection. Who can forget the candle light vigils that marked the death of John Lennon? Admire your heroes, don’t worship them.

Outside the boardrooms of Sony and EMI, there are those of us who look to music to remind us that we’re not alone, to help us make sense of a changing world, and to inspire us to believe that we can change anything if we want to. Joe Strummer’s music changed lives, and we should not forget the truly incendiary power that music can have. His intensity focused the music into something whole, and wholly his. Asked to explain what The Mescaleros, his last band, play in the song Bhindi Bhagee he said It’s got a bit of … um y’know Ragga bhangra, two-step tango, Mini-cab radio, music on the go! Umm, surfbeat, backbeat, frontbeat, backseat. There’s a bunch of players and they’re really letting go! – which of course is just what 37 Signals are doing in their own way, and we should all do with our lives.

Joe Strummer remained sincere and passionate, always has a cause to fight for – his last gig was a benefit gig for the striking fireman in London. In the audience was Mick Jones, his partner from the The Clash. Mick got onstage and they played a couple of the old tunes together for the first time in 20 years. Strummer died two weeks later. How poignant was that night. He fought against the injustices of the world, and strove to push himself forward artistically, but he will be remembered above all for the band that was loved by so many, The Clash, with his hoarse, bawling voice and choppy rhythm guitar he gave it his all, and thereby inspired a whole generation. He is sorely missed, but his music will continue to inspire.

It’s Christmas 2011, the offices and buses are empty, people are at home and Strummer is dead. All around the world, people aged between 40 and 60 are putting on Clash songs today in tribute. He said the future is unwritten,  so let’s do it, and make sure Joe Strummer lives forever.